How Virginia simply wasn't ready, plus the wisdom of Johnny the Janitor.
Richmond, Va.: Virginia simply wasn't ready. Voting rights watchdogs have been warning since the primaries that the state was going to have problems if it didn't boost the resources available—and distribute them properly. The polls hadn't even opened when that warning came crashing into reality: at least two precincts couldn't even get the voting started on time. Outside one of them, in southern Richmond, voters reported later in the morning that they'd been in line for three hours and counting.
As in dozens of states, the story of the day in Virginia is long lines in heavily black and Democratic precincts. The causes are myriad. Many precincts have too few poll workers or too few voting machines. One common problem was that poll workers divided the line in half by alphabet, only to find that one half of the alphabet far outweighed the other. They stuck to their system rather than adapting to reality, creating lengthy waits. Voting machines also broke down in several places, and election officials delayed hours before encouraging poll workers to start using paper ballots. Elsewhere, elderly and disabled voters who are entitled to curbside voting at their precincts were being told they instead had to stand in line, in the rain.
That's a particularly touchy problem, since a federal judge yesterday pointed to curbside voting, in part, as relief for voters hurt by long lines when he rejected an NAACP request that the state be forced to extend voting hours. NAACP Executive Director Ben Jealous said this afternoon that the organization was weighing whether to go back to the court and ask that the state be held in contempt. "We've been talking to them for over a month, saying 'Fix it,'" Jealous said about the problems this morning. "They're perfectly capable of fixing it, and I don't know why they won't."
But the voting delays have done little to discourage voters. Outside Southside Baptist Church in Richmond, hundreds of voters stood in a muddy field, under the rain, for up to three hours. The site was so chaotic police had to be dispatched to control car traffic in front of it. Blocks away, cars parked on street shoulders, in gas station lots and—much to their neighbors' chagrin—on folks' lawns. Yet, voters repeatedly said they were content to wait. "It was to be expected," one man shrugged, smiling and pointing to his grade school son. "And he was here with me the whole way."
Meanwhile, a national coalition of election watchdogs, under the banner Election Protection, whirred all morning, working to control the chaos. A dozen election lawyers huddled in a downtown firm, fielding calls from voters and teams of lawyers and law school students who fanned out to the polls. They dispatched experts to battle—or, as they'd say, help—poll workers where needed, harangued the state board to resolve problems, and handed out advice to individual voters.
Like Jealous, Election Protection volunteers were frustrated to have been proven correct about the inadequate resources. "We're seeing exactly what we predicted," sighed Vinceretta Taylor Chiles, who volunteered as a watchdog through the state's black law guild, the Old Dominion Bar Association. "If they would have just put more resources at these precincts, we wouldn't have these problems."
By afternoon, most precincts had calmed down, according to news reports and election officials. But everyone was bracing for a difficult close when the second rush comes after work. "We do not have any confidence the resource are sufficient to meet the need," said Election Protection's Peggy Sanders, "and we'll see problems again at the end of the day."
--by Kai Wright
Cleveland: The first person I talked to yesterday was our always-upbeat building supervisor. His name is Johnny, and he was more gregarious than usual. I suspected it was because he was overjoyed that this long, historic election was almost at its conclusion.
Johnny the Janitor is an exceptionally well-educated man, informed partly by his life on Cleveland's bitter streets and partly by his job keeping track of everything that happens inside our newspaper building.
I've seen Johnny the Janitor poring over stacks of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, GQ and People as he eats lunch in the cafeteria. His street cred is indisputable, evidenced by his hair; he wears a slicked-back, processed, finger-wave pompadour like women in the 1940s and 1950s. (How he performs sweaty work and maintains that fresh 'do is a mystery to me, one I haven't dared to ask him in the eight years I've known him.)
Anyway, Johnny the Janitor stopped me as I entered the building, grinning like a mad man: "John Wayne ain't coming to white folks rescue tomorrow, is he?"
We both roared with laughter because he saw the future of America. The election is over, and our Election Day headline could have been written on the spot: OBAMA WINS!!!
Of course, we'll have to wait for the official returns to appear in the alphabet soup on FOX, CNN and MSNBC. And I must confess that I've paid too much attention to the talking heads.
Before running into Johnny this morning, for example, I watched as some McCain loyalists were arguing about whether McCain knows it's over. (He does, they eventually agreed.) But before they got there, there was a spirited discussion about whether the voters get a chance to weigh in.
It was entertaining, all the more so for what followed immediately afterward: a rehash of the previous debate, only this time whether Obama will get 300+ electoral votes. (He will, they eventually agreed.) But once again, the GOPers said, let the voters decide before we pronounce anything.
Clearly, those expensive-suit-wearing talking heads had two days of talk time to fill and they'd run out of sober things to discuss. So they argued about nothing, exhausting their tired arguments and boilerplate logic.
I should have been hanging with Johnny the Janitor. He can drop science that all the big-name pundits can't comprehend. See, Johnny is Everyman, the hard-working and common-sense soul who cuts straight to the bottom line. He has neither the time, nor patience to spin out the endless what-ifs of politics. He's got painting to do, grass to cut, toilets to clean and big-shot egos to avoid like a death-dealing disease.
Johnny the Janitor figures out the answer to a problem and sets about getting it done. He bypasses the bottomless yakkity-yak; whatever is on TV is just entertainment, something to laugh at and nothing more.
So when Johnny the Janitor calls the election, book it. If Obamamania has worked its magic to make him believe, then hope is more than a four-letter word. It's the truth.
--Sam Fulwood III
Georgia: Down here in the Peach State, football is either a form of patriotism, evidence of good Christian faith, or both. So the election here now looks like a game that has gone into the fourth quarter with the underdog down by only one point. Even before the Democratic primary blowout where Barack Obama ran up a 35-point spread against Hillary Clinton and took more than 90 percent of the black vote, there was reason to believe progressives could pull off an upset here.
On the surface, the state looks like barren terrain for hopeful Democrats. It has a solidly Republican legislature. Its current governor, Sonny Perdue, ousted Democrat Roy Barnes by pledging to protect the Confederate flag that Barnes had removed from the state capitol. (Perdue also closed schools for a day to save gas money and held a prayer vigil for rain during last summer's drought.) In 2004, the state voted overwhelmingly in favor of a ban on gay marriage.
That said, there are holes in the GOP's defense. For one, Georgia looks a lot like Illinois did before Obama won his senatorial campaign: A place with half its population—and most of its Democrats—centered in a major metropolitan area and an array of rural Republican-leaning counties to the south. Of the 9 million residents of the state, 5.4 million live in the Atlanta metro area, and ever since 1992 when the Peach State went for Bill Clinton, Georgia Democrats have dreamed of putting together a sustainable majority in the state.
In 2004, Obama was able to break out of the GOP collar surrounding Chicago and pick off enough downstate voters to give him a path to victory. Black voters accounted for about 28 percent of the electorate here in the last presidential election, but according to recent reports, we represent as much as 39 percent of the early voting totals.
Those are the numbers. But here is the experience. I knew that Georgia had turned purple as far back as January when I went canvassing for the primary. A knot of us stood at a stoplight near the off-ramp of I-20 about 10 miles outside the city. Before long, people were swerving over to the side and asking for bumper stickers and campaign literature. I made the mistake of targeting cars with African-American drivers but quickly learned that there was no demographic shorthand to tell whether someone was interested. Two bearded white men dressed in construction clothes and driving a pickup truck pulled up and asked me if I had any more buttons or stickers. A middle-aged white man told me he was a committed Republican but "from what I can tell Obama seems like a decent guy."
Stand outside the polling places in downtown Atlanta and you'll swear people are waiting for Prince tickets. The line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, where the polls are set up, routinely stretches out the door and down the street. Students in my classes report four-hour wait times to vote in some of the most solidly African-American areas of the city, and there are estimates that some districts will see 95 percent of their black voters turn out.
In the bleak days after the GOP convention, Georgia receded so far into the McCain column that Obama withdrew some of his organizers and deployed them in Florida and North Carolina where the numbers looked more favorable. But earlier this week, he sent 100 people back here. I was initially scheduled to spend the weekend before the election doing groundwork in Florida, but I'm now going to be knocking on doors two counties over in the Atlanta suburbs.
This surge is impacting races across the state. Sen. Saxby Chambliss won his seat in 2002 by labeling Max Cleland—a veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam—"unpatriotic" and soft on terrorism. Chambliss expected to have an easy victory over Democratic challenger Jim Martin this year, but the huge Obama effect has made the race a statistical dead heat. There is an increasingly plausible hope that Democrats will win either a senate seat or a presidential race here.
I literally laughed out loud last week when I saw an ad featuring a farmer saying he wanted to hire new workers but wouldn't do so if Obama won because "I know he'll raise my taxes." The fact that the McCain campaign is devoting precious resources to buy airtime in Georgia is akin to saying that your opponent has the ball on your 12-yard line and if they don't score a touchdown, they're certain to at least score a field goal.
--William Jelani Cobb